This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Agony Booth review: War of the Worlds (2005)

My latest Agony Booth review is of Steven Spielberg's exciting take on War of the Worlds.

I’m going to admit right up front that I really liked this movie. In fact, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s one of Steven Spielberg’s best, his version of War of the Worlds is high up there on the rather short list of remakes that are actually better than the originals.

Before the 1953 film, the story was famously adapted for radio by the great Orson Welles, and it scared the hell out of people on Halloween night, 1938. And it just so happens that both Welles and Spielberg were labeled “boy wonders” because of their directorial successes at an early age. Spielberg was a big fan of the original film, so perhaps it was only inevitable that he would make his own version of the story. While to some, this movie may appear to be War of the Worlds in name only (after all, we never get an appearance from anybody named Dr. Clayton Forrester), Spielberg’s take retains the spirit of the original work, and even includes a bit more material from the original H.G. Wells novel.

Just as in the novel, the film begins with a narrator (Morgan Freeman) telling us that humanity has been blissfully unaware that an alien intelligence has long been watching us, and waiting for the right time to strike. We then cut to New Jersey, where Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) is finishing up his work day as a crane operator. He then races home to meet up with his pregnant ex-wife (Miranda Otto) who’s dropping off their children Rachel (Dakota Fanning) and Robbie (Justin Chatwin), so that Ray can babysit them while she and her new husband go to Boston to visit her parents.

Ray proves that he’s not exactly father of the year by being late to meet his kids, and later on by arguing with Robbie as they play catch (which ends with Ray angrily throwing a ball through one of his own windows).

Ray then goes off to nap, telling Rachel to order some food if she’s hungry (I guess this means the ten year old has her own credit card?). At the same time, reports come in of unusual lightning storms all over the world, resulting in lots of blackouts and electronic devices going dead. Ray wakes up, and after expressing his dislike for the healthy food Rachel ordered (next time, just get pizza for your kids, pal), he learns that Robbie took off in his car without permission.

Ray goes after him, and in the process encounters one of the disturbances he heard about via the news. Dark clouds suddenly appear in the skies, and lightning repeatedly hits the center of town, and just as quickly, the storm vanishes.

Ray finds Robbie, then goes to investigate the exact spot where those lightning strikes hit. A crowd has gathered around a giant hole in the pavement, which then begins to grow, causing all the neighborhood streets to break apart and buildings to collapse. The crowd then sees a huge, three-legged machine rise up from the ground. It proceeds to shoot out laser beams that vaporize anything and everything in its path, and never was the phrase “ashes to ashes” more apt.

Ray escapes the machine and its death ray and makes it home, in shock and covered in the dust that was once his neighbors. But he manages to pull himself together and pack up his kids and some supplies.

They miraculously get hold of the only working car for miles around and drive away just as their entire neighborhood gets obliterated. They make it to his ex-wife’s suburban home, which is currently empty, so Ray gets his kids ready to sleep down in the basement. Alas, they don’t get much sleep once they hear a horrific noise outside. In the dawn light, Ray discovers that a Boeing 747 has crashed into the neighborhood.

While searching the wreckage, Ray encounters a small TV news crew. The reporter tells Ray that these machines, nicknamed “tripods”, are also attacking other parts of the world. And just like in the original movie, the machines are equipped with force fields that prevent any human weapons from so much as making a scratch on them.

The reporter shows him footage of the original lightning strikes, and slows it down to show how the “lightning” was really a small capsule flying down from the sky and burrowing into the ground. Meaning, the tripods must have been buried underground many years before.

Ray then decides to head to Boston to reunite the kids with their mom. But Robbie is determined to join up with a passing military convoy to fight the aliens. He expresses his disgust for Ray, knowing he simply wants to get them to Boston so he can dump them off on their mother.

At the same time, a nice freaky moment occurs when Rachel walks off to find privacy to relieve herself. She sees a dead body floating down the river, followed by dozens more. Things get worse as they continue on their way to Boston, only to find themselves surrounded by an angry mob who steals their car away. Ray and the kids then attempt to get on a ferry going across the Hudson River, but the aliens cause the ferry to sink, forcing everyone to swim to safety.

Robbie is determined to join the soldiers in fighting the aliens, and Ray is stuck in a situation where he has to choose between saving Rachel and letting Robbie go. Eventually, he decides to save Rachel, and he and the girl are offered shelter by a guy named Harlan Ogilvy (Tim Robbins). But Ogilvy (a name taken from the novel) turns out to be a nutcase who has a mental breakdown when he looks outside and sees the aliens feeding on the blood of humans. His ranting and raving threatens to draw the aliens to their hiding place, leaving Ray no choice but to kill him (hey, I hated Howard the Duck as much as the next guy, but Robbins shouldn’t be blamed for that!).

Then comes the film’s most intense sequence, as the aliens hunt for Ray and Rachel in Ogilvy’s house using a long, snake-like periscope (similar to the one seen in the 1953 movie) and manage to find them. They run outside, where a tripod scoops them up. They’re thrown into a cage-like structure with other prisoners, but luckily, Ray was earlier able to snag some grenades from an abandoned army jeep. He pulls the pins and the resulting explosion brings the tripod to the ground.

This frees everyone, and Ray and Rachel finally manage to get to Boston, which isn’t as devastated as you’d think, given the circumstances. When they arrive, they realize that the tripods are starting to weaken. Because he’s the lead character, Ray informs the nearby military of something you’d think they would have noticed on their own already: the tripods no longer have their force fields. Once they’re told the obvious, the soldiers fire at will and destroy the alien invaders.

Ray finally delivers Rachel to her mom, who’s staying with her parents (Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, the stars of the 1953 film). Also here is Robbie, who’s miraculously survived, even though the last time we saw him he was with the army heading over a hill into a massive wall of fire. Morgan Freeman’s narration returns to inform us that, just like in the novel, the aliens were brought down because of their lack of immunity to Earth bacteria. In other words, they were smarter than the aliens in Signs because it wasn’t just plain old tap water that did them in.

The film has some head-scratching moments. Many have taken issue with Robbie surviving at the movie’s end, but perhaps the biggest WTF moment for me was why the aliens left their machines in the ground for God knows how long, and yet no one ever came across them.

But overall, the film picks up after a slow start and remains exciting until the end. The scenes with the aliens hunting people are as intense as those of dinosaurs doing the same in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. The 1953 original was released during an era of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, and in their place, Spielberg’s version is made with 9/11 sensibilities (“Is it terrorists?” Robbie asks at one point in the film, and when Ray is covered in the dust of victims, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the WTC dust that covered Manhattan), which gives this movie a timely feel.

I was skeptical about a remake of War of the Worlds initially, because I thought that it had already basically been remade nine years earlier as Independence Day. Thankfully, this film manages to be different from ID4 because it’s told entirely from the POV of everyday people just trying to survive, as opposed to top bureaucrats and heads of state tasked with stopping the aliens. In an issue of Entertainment Weekly, Stephen King named the film one of the best films of 2005, calling it “human science fiction, and that’s a rarity.”

This brings us to the movie’s star. Cruise is as fine here as he was in his previous film with Spielberg, Minority Report. While we may question Ray’s parenting skills, Cruise does a good job of playing a blue-collar everyman who’s simply trying to protect his children. In another nice touch, Cruise’s usual smirking, hotshot action movie persona is subverted here, as the movie makes it clear that his character is in way over his head. One of his best moments is when Rachel asks him to sing her to sleep and Ray realizes he doesn’t know any bedtime songs, so he starts tearfully singing the Beach Boys as a lullaby.

Like basically all of Spielberg’s films, the production values are top notch. The visual effects are good without being overdone, and John Williams delivers another exciting musical score. The aliens themselves are nicely done by ILM, and it’s a nice change of pace seeing aliens in a Spielberg film that aren’t as benevolent as those of Close Encounters and E.T.

Some complained that Dakota Fanning as Rachel does nothing but shriek for the whole movie, but she and Chatwin are believable as kids caught up in something terrifying and otherworldly, to say the least.

Although the movie was financially successful, this was in a way the beginning of the end of the public’s affection for Tom Cruise, who was making headlines at the time for jumping on Oprah’s couch and hooking up with Katie Holmes and fighting with Brooke Shields about postpartum depression. This tabloid fodder ended up overshadowing the movie itself.

But the film reminds us it’s not an accident that, for a time, Cruise was a real force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. One reason for this is that as his star rose, Cruise set out to work with the best people, not necessarily those who would kiss his ass. This is why he has a nice who’s-who’s of directors in his filmography, including Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick, Oliver Stone, and Michael Mann.

While the Mission: Impossible sequels are still bringing in the money for Cruise (with a fifth installment due next year), it’d be nice if he was able to make good movies again, rather than churning out junk like Oblivion and the upcoming Edge of Tomorrow.

War of the Worlds, despite a few hiccups in logic, succeeds in its objective, which is to deliver thrilling entertainment. It gives blockbusters with big stars and great special effects a good name.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Agony Booth review: Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

My recent review for the Agony Booth is the watchable, but substance-free Cowboys & Aliens.

In recent decades, westerns have had a spotty track record, to say the least. When the classic western Unforgiven was released in 1992, I saw numerous articles saying that the genre was coming back in all its glory. Many big-screen and small-screen westerns were on the drawing board. Some of these, such as Tombstone and Maverick proved successful, but most did not.

More recently, Quentin Tarantino’s pseudo-western Django Unchained was a hit at the box office, winning Oscars for Christoph Waltz and Tarantino’s screenplay. But any hopes that the western had returned were dashed again thanks to last year’s flop The Lone Ranger.

Before Django, however, there was 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens, which was an adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg. Sadly, this film proved that even throwing space aliens into the mix could not make westerns viable for studios in this day and age.

The movie begins in 1873 in what is now New Mexico. An amnesiac who we later learn is named Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the desert with a strange bracelet on his wrist that won’t come off. Like all amnesiacs in movies like this, he instantly realizes he’s tougher than he remembers, and swiftly kills three drifters who come upon him and try to steal his bracelet.

Taking their clothing and weapons, Lonergan goes into the bizarrely named town of Absolution, where his wounds are treated by a preacher named Meacham (Clancy Brown). Over in the center of town, a drunkard named Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) terrorizes the townspeople, and needless to say, Lonergan mops the floor with him, too.

This leads to the local sheriff (Keith Carradine) recognizing Longergan as an outlaw wanted for various crimes. He attempts to arrest Lonergan, who resists and fights back, only to get knocked out when a woman named Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) strikes him on the head with the butt of her pistol.

Lonergan is locked up, with Percy Dolarhyde as his cellmate. As the two await trial, the latter’s father, wealthy cattleman Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) arrives, demanding the release of his son. He also wants Lonergan turned over to him for stealing his gold.

That’s when the aliens make their first appearance, with their spaceships hovering over Absolution, blasting away at the town. Many townspeople, including Percy and the sheriff, are caught by whip-like devices on the bottom of the ships (resisting the urge to make a sexual joke here). But then the bracelet on Lonergan’s wrist comes in handy, and he’s able to fire an energy beam that disables one of the ships.

The damaged spaceship crashes in the middle of town, and the alien pilot escapes. So the Colonel and Ella round up a posse to track down the alien. But Lonergan, who’s split off from the group for some reason, goes to an empty log cabin. He flashes back to being there with a woman named Alice (Abigail Spencer) and showing her the gold he stole. She’s outraged and tells him to return it, but then aliens crash through the roof of the cabin and abduct them both.

Back in the present, Lonergan joins the Colonel’s posse, and they set up camp. During the night, the escaped alien appears and kills Meacham.

By the morning, most of the posse has deserted them, and by an amazing coincidence, they’re soon attacked by Lonergan’s former gang. It seems they’re here to exact revenge upon him for stealing the ill-gotten gains of their previous heist.

The aliens attack again, and this time, they grab Ella. To remind us that he’s the hero, Lonergan jumps onto the ship to save her. He causes the ship to crash into the water, and the alien pilot fights them and critically injures Ella.

And then the movie remembers this is a western as well as a sci-fi film when a group of Apache Indians show up to capture our heroes, blaming them (for some reason) for the alien invasion.

The Indians intend to cremate Ella, tossing her body onto a campfire. Suddenly, the flames explode and Ella is standing there resurrected (and naked). As it turns out, she’s a member of another alien race, who’s here to help Earth after her own homeworld was invaded and destroyed.

She explains that the invaders, interestingly, have come to Earth to mine gold. And also, not as interestingly, they’re capturing humans to perform experiments on them.

Lonergan then remembers that the aliens killed his woman Alice after they were done experimenting on her. They almost killed him too, but he managed to steal one of the aliens’ weapons (the bracelet) and then escape. Also in this flashback, he remembers that the aliens’ mothership landed out in the desert, and he knows exactly where to find it.

He then convinces his old gang to join Dolarhyde’s posse in an assault on the alien mothership.

Following in the footsteps of such illustrious sci-fi epics as Independence Day and The Phantom Menace, the ship’s defenses don’t take long to penetrate, and the humans blow up the shuttle bay. As the cowboys fight the aliens (hey, the title does not lie), Lonergan and Ella free all the alien abductees still being held on the ship. After this, Dolarhyde joins them, and he and Lonergan take down the alien that killed Alice.

Just as the ship is about to take off, Ella destroys it with Lonergan’s bracelet, sacrificing herself.

The just-released abductees are reunited with their loved ones (I liked this film better when it was called Close Encounters of the Third Kind). Meanwhile, the sheriff and Dolarhyde decide to let Lonergan walk away a free man (don’t movie outlaws always get all the breaks?) by telling people he was killed in the battle.

As the town begins to rebuild, Lonergan, in typical western fashion, rides off into the sunset.

The film certainly had promise, beginning with its director, Jon Favreau, who previously scored with Made, Elf, and the first Iron Man. He even rejected the idea of shooting the film in 3-D, because he felt that westerns are a classic movie genre and should be presented in old-fashioned 2-D. I doubt it would have made any difference one way or another, but given the current 3-D overload in theaters, Favreau deserves credit for having more than pure spectacle on his mind.

The movie was even touted in some quarters as a virtual team-up between Indiana Jones and the current James Bond (who, to me, is a less than ideal Bond—I guess I’m the only person who thought Skyfall was just okay).

Many were disappointed with this film, but I found it enjoyable, if predictable. Perhaps it was that predictability which prevented it from becoming the smash some thought it would be.

Which is a shame, as Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig both look at home in their cowboy garb and work well together. Ford in particular actually looks like he’s enjoying himself, as opposed to other not-so-stellar appearances in recent movies like Ender’s Game and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (which, let’s face it, only made money for the same reason the Star Wars prequels made money, even if it was much more enjoyable than those three films).

Another plus is that the aliens themselves are nicely done (thanks to Legacy Effects and ILM, among others), if not exactly on par with those in District 9, which was reportedly the inspiration for the creatures’ designs here.

This film’s problem, though, is that it’s a fun way to pass the time but nothing more. Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t attempt to do anything surprising. It’s simply content with being a standard action film. And like most action films, it doesn’t take long for us to figure out who will survive and who won’t, or for us to meet characters who are forced to put aside their differences and work together, and of course there’s the main character and the love interest who take until the end of the film to figure out what we all knew from the beginning: that they belong together.

True to the title, the movie does give you cowboys, and it does give you aliens, but not a whole heck of a lot else. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that the screenplay is from Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, best known for writing the two recent Star Trek films. Those films, while financially successful, are not held in high esteem by many Trek fans, and with good reason: they’re basically just action films set in space with no real regard for the source material. Cowboys & Aliens takes the same approach as their two Trek movies; at one point, they actually referred to it as “Unforgiven with aliens landing.”

I wonder if they just picked the name of a classic western out of a hat when coming up with this description, because part of the greatness of Unforgiven is that it’s a journey into Clint Eastwood’s character and his search for redemption. This aspect of the story helped it earn a place among the great westerns. Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t offer such personal drama. Craig may play an outlaw, but he definitely doesn’t go through hell (personal or otherwise) for his past the way Clint’s Will Munny did. If this movie did have any conflict like that, it might have actually distinguished itself from other sci-fi action movies and been a lot more memorable.

One wonders if Kurtzman and Orci even watch the finished versions of the movies they write before making such, shall we say, interesting statements.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Best Horror Movies Review: Phantasm (1979)

The classic horror movie Phantasm turns 35 this year. This led me to re-post a review which I initially posted a while back on best-horror-movies.com, which is run by Don Sumner, who I had the pleasure of meeting a few years ago. I also bought a copy of his book Horror Movie Freak, which has nice mini-reviews of many horror pictures as well as a DVD of the classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). Thank you, Don!

While the film, being an independent production, doesn’t have quite the budget of Alien (1979), it is a nice exercise in efficiency with the resources at its disposal.

The storyline is: a young boy named Mike (played by Michael Baldwin) becomes suspicious of wrongdoings at the local cemetery following the death of his pal, Tommy. With his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) and their pal Reggie (Reggie Bannister), Mike finds out that Tommy’s body, along with others laid to rest there, have been taken by a creepy fellow known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) who is really an alien that crushes the corpses to dwarf-size, dresses them in brown-hooded cloaks (?), and sends at least some of them through an inter-dimensional gateway set up at the funeral parlor into his world to be slaves.

The aforementioned alien world, seen only briefly at the climax when Mike accidentally goes through the gateway (which consists of two small poles standing only a few feet apart), has a greater gravity pull than Earth which is why the bodies The Tall Man takes are crushed to Jawa size. Not surprisingly, the fact that the already-dead victims are also dressed like Jawas (but sound like the Tasmanian Devil) made comparisons to Star Wars (1977) inevitable. Phantasm producer Paul Pepperman has since gone on record saying that the dwarves’ look was purely coincidental.

Like Halloween (1978), this movie has protagonists who are easy to root for. Mike and Jody obviously share a close brotherly bond (one reason being that they lost their parents fairly recently), and they love Reggie the same way, as is shown when he and Jody spend time playing music (both Thornbury and Bannister are real life songwriters). Unlike Halloween, however, there is no Loomis character versed in the history of their adversary to offer his/her assistance (in other words, these guys are on their own).

In addition to his killer sphere, The Tall Man has great strength (he lifts Tommy’s coffin by himself after the funeral) and can turn himself into a gorgeous woman (Kathy Lester) with a penchant for lavender dresses, who is listed in the credits as simply ‘Lady in Lavender.’ Indeed, the film opens with Tommy’s death at ‘her’ hands after they just had a nice romp in the graveyard (I guess there were no couches in the parlor itself). ‘She’ almost disposes of Jody in the same manner before being interrupted by Mike running and screaming from one of the dwarves.

The Tall Man is also seemingly immortal as he survives both an explosion (the hearse he’s driving explodes after colliding with a phone poll at the film’s climax) and falling into a deep man-made crevice, as part of a ruse Jody and Mike orchestrates, which is then sealed up with rocks. This makes his final appearance (and, with it, his final line) in the film a nice jump-outta-your-seat moment.

This is not to say that The Tall Man doesn’t have weaknesses. When Mike decides to go to the parlor to investigate, he not only sees firsthand the effectiveness of the spheres (the fellow on the receiving end is a nameless lackey of The Tall Man) but also that The Tall Man has mustard-colored blood when Mike manages to cut off a few of his fingers during his escape. Understandably shocked, he picks up and pockets one of the still-twitching fingers (ewww!), returns home, and brings Jody up to speed. Before they can go to the cops, though, the finger turns into a ugly looking bug (with teeth no less) which our heroes have quite a time containing before they finally down it with the garbage disposal.

I must point out the nice music by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave. It’s not bone-chilling like the music to Jaws (1975) or Suspiria (1977), but it’s nicely moody and atmospheric, similar to the score of The Fog (1980). Naturally, this film’s success led to sequels, although, interestingly, we had to wait almost a decade before the release of Phantasm II (1988). This time, the film had the backing of Universal Studios and, with that, a bigger budget. Of course, this means the deaths were gorier, but the sphere looks better than ever as well. But, the sequel (along with two others that came afterward) became more and more bizarre-and not in a good way.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Agony Booth review: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

My first review for the Agony Booth has just been published. This is of the less-than-satisfying blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow. Thanks to everyone at the site for their support and I look forward to writing more for the site in the future.

It’s not exactly controversial to say that many action blockbusters are dumb films. The trick is for them to still be entertaining. This is why some blockbusters like The Lone Ranger bomb big time, while others such as Independence Day score. Independence Day, or ID4 as it’s known, was directed by Roland Emmerich, who previously had a big hit with Stargate. Unfortunately, a lot of his subsequent work has been less than stellar, including our current subject The Day After Tomorrow.

The film is actually based on a book, The Coming Global Superstorm by fringe science legends Art Bell and Whitley Strieber. It describes how global warming could cause a massive storm that plunges the planet into a new ice age in a matter of weeks. Given the two authors, there’s enough reason to be skeptical of the book’s claims, but going by this movie, Emmerich took all of it at face value.

And whereas ID4 had decent enough pacing to make the audience forget about the many plot holes and lapses in logic, Tomorrow’s script and characters are so laughable and predictable that, by the end of the film, you realize it’s ID4, just in a different, weather-related package.

The movie begins with the camera panning over broken chunks of glaciers, and text on the screen tells us that we’re in Antarctica. We see men, led by paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) drilling into the ice for samples, as ominous music warns the audience that something horrible is about to happen. Sure enough, the ice breaks apart, and their drilling machine gets swallowed up by the crevasse that just formed. Jack and his friend Frank (Jay O. Sanders) manage to grab the operator Jason (Dash Mihok), preventing him from falling to his death. Jack then performs a Batman leap over the huge gap in the ice to save some of their samples.

He then repeats his superhero leap and barely makes it. In stereotypical blockbuster movie fashion, we get a moment where Jack slips and has only a pick axe to keep him from falling into oblivion.

After Frank and Jason pull him up, they ask the same question I’m sure Quaid’s been asking himself since he agreed to do Jaws 3: “What were you thinking?”

We next see Jack at a UN conference in New Delhi, where he attempts to convince the gathered audience that the world is heading for another ice age. Not surprisingly, the US delegation, led by Vice President (and Dick Cheney-lookalike) Raymond Becker (Kenneth Welsh) doesn’t believe Jack when he presents his findings.

And for anyone who thinks the resemblance to Cheney was purely coincidental, the VP’s black, money-grubbing soul leaks out when he listens to Jack’s dire warnings that something must be done about the impending disaster and responds with, “It will cost the world’s economy hundreds of millions of dollars!”

Fortunately, the one person in the audience who doesn’t brush off Jack is Terry Rapson (Ian Holm), who introduces himself to Jack outside the conference hall. Here, we also learn that New Dehli is experiencing a record snowfall.

The next scene is at a research center in Scotland, where a guy is watching a soccer game. He then acts like a hypocrite when he wakes up his sleeping coworker before returning to the game. Hey, I’m not one to endorse sleeping on the job, but I’d say watching TV on the job is just as bad.

Fortunately, the guy who was sleeping proves the more competent of the two when, en route to the coffee pot, he notices a reading on the computer that our soccer fan was too absorbed in his game to notice. This turns out to be the beginnings of the deep freeze that Jack warned about, and soon other locations are experiencing turbulent weather, including Tokyo getting super deadly-sized hail.

As if Jack doesn’t already have enough on his plate, he’s also having problems with his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s (I guess) estranged from his dad because of trouble in school. Jack calls his wife Lucy (Sela Ward) to talk about how Sam is failing calculus. But she’s more concerned that Jack is never home, and Sam needs a ride to the airport the next morning for a trip to New York City for an academic competition. Lucy’s duties as a doctor (which, I would think, keep her away from home just as much as Jack) are keeping her from taking Sam herself.

Jack is drafted to drive Sam to the airport to force some “quality time” together, and also so he can yell at Sam about his lousy grades. Jack reluctantly agrees, since having to deal with a Dick Cheney-esque VP probably makes everything else feel like a cakewalk.

Naturally, Jack totally forgets to pick up Sam until the last minute, and gets there just as a cab is pulling up. Jack pays the cabbie for his trouble, and while on the way to the airport, Sam explains that his calculus professor failed him because he didn’t write out the solutions to the problems, and thus assumed he must have cheated. Rather than simply tell Sam to swallow his pride and write out the solutions next time to make everyone happy, Jack says he’ll have a word with the teacher. But Sam brushes him off and simply darts out of the car without saying goodbye. Yeah, don’t even thank your dad for paying the cabbie you called, asshole!

We then get a quick scene of astronauts on the International Space Station observing the weather patterns that are preventing them from returning home. Cut to Sam on an airplane with his classmates Laura (Emmy Rossum) and Steve Urkel-lookalike Brian (Arjay Smith). Sam is afraid to fly, so Laura tells him there’s nothing to worry about. Despite her reassurances, weather-related turbulence causes the plane to rock so violently I think I might have put in Final Destination by mistake. This also gives Sam a reason to hold Laura’s hand.

They make it to New York, and traffic is at a dead stop. Sam, Laura, and Brian are in a cab heading to the public library, and they decide to walk since they’re only two blocks away. I have to wonder how long they were sitting there before they figured that out. As they get out, a huge flock of birds flies over the city, an obvious portent of doom. And in the nearby Central Park Zoo, we get shots of other animals, such as seals and wolves, getting agitated as well.

Next, the trio is at the competition itself, where Laura catches the eye of J.D. (Austin Nichols), a student from a rival school. He introduces himself at the after party, where Laura is the only one who’s changed clothes, and put on a slinky cocktail dress because she’s a girl and this is a Roland Emmerich film. J.D. offers Laura a tour of the place, and Brian notices that Sam is getting jealous. Thanks, movie, for making your predictable plot points as obvious as possible.

In the next scene, Rapson calls Jack and says that his theories are coming true, and Jack is shocked, because he didn’t think it would happen in his own lifetime. He then goes to a weather station, where he’s introduced to hurricane specialist Janet Tokada (Tamlyn Tomita). But their attention is soon drawn to news of multiple tornadoes in Los Angeles, which the reporter in the chopper notes have taken out the Hollywood sign (no need to remind us you made Independence Day, Roland). Unsurprisingly, there are people on the ground risking their lives just to get a few stupid pictures of the damn twisters, and serve as the ubiquitous victims of the natural disaster.

Over in Washington D.C., VP Becker informs the President (Perry King) that L.A. is in ruins. Although the President here doesn’t resemble George W. Bush, it’s pretty obvious he was the inspiration, because he immediately asks his VP what to do.

At the weather center, Jacks says that the storms are only going to get worse. His boss gives him 48 hours to prove it and Janet offers her assistance in building a new forecast model. This also gives Jason the chance to hit on her, mainly by answering all the questions she directs at Frank (yeah, you’re sure to get a date with her now, pal). Eventually, they determine that the world has mere weeks before everything goes from bad to worse.

Cut to Sam, Laura, and Brian stuck in the library, due to all air traffic being grounded. Jack calls Sam to tell him to get home ASAP, but this falls on deaf ears, because Sam is far more interested in staying wherever Laura is.

Jack heads to D.C., where he tells VP Becker that they have to act quickly and evacuate the northern states. This, as you can probably guess, leads to Becker once again telling Jack to piss off.

Meanwhile, over in Scotland, some army chopper pilots encounter a massive storm that causes them all to crash. And then one pilot opens the door to his chopper and instantly freezes to death.

We go back to our three young leads, who are trying to get out of New York, which is now completely flooded. And that’s when a massive tsunami hits the city (why not?).

Sam sees a huge wall of water coming at them, so all the students make a run for the library. They all get inside in the nick of time and are completely safe, because apparently the library’s revolving door is watertight.

They’re all trapped inside, but Sam manages to make a call to his parents (who have met up somewhere along the way) via the library’s payphones. This gives Jack a chance to warn him that things are about to become so cold that simply going outside could cause instant death. And the phones in the library are also getting flooded, but Sam stays on the line long enough to hear that his dad will come for him, before the rising water almost drowns him.

This leads to Laura warming Sam up with her body, which she explains as something she learned in health class, and which may be the closest thing this film has to a gratuitous sex scene. To help stay warm, the students proceed to burn the library’s books in a fireplace, much to one of the librarians’ horror.

At the same time, Jack meets with the President, and suggests evacuating everyone in the southern United States into Mexico, adding that everyone to the north is screwed. But that doesn’t stop him from taking Frank and Jason to go find Sam who, last I heard, was in the northern US.

The intrepid group gets as far as Philadelphia when their truck crashes, prompting Jack to say, “Break out the snow shoes! We walk from here!” This line makes me chuckle, because Quaid says it like it’s just another inconvenience, rather than something that requires walking nearly 100 miles in potentially lethal weather. During their super long hike across the snow, Frank dies when he falls through the glass roof of a mall. I wonder if he died from smelling the place’s Auntie Anne’s.

Back in NYC, Sam and Laura kiss after he confesses that he only joined the team so he could be near her. See? There’s nothing like a new ice age to break the proverbial ice in a relationship.

At the same time, the President gets killed by a storm while heading to Mexico. So it would appear VP Becker just got a promotion. Damn, first half the world gets frozen over, then Cheney gets to be President. It really is the apocalypse!

Laura begins to feel ill, and somehow Sam, a teenager with no medical experience, correctly determines that her wound has led to blood poisoning. But as it so happens, a (miraculously intact) Russian cargo ship has floated into the middle of a freezing metropolitan area and is right outside the library. So Sam and Brian decide to go aboard the conveniently abandoned vessel, where, yep, they happen to find the exact medicine they need.

This leads to the funniest part of the film, where wolves (who earlier escaped from the Central Park Zoo) sneak onto the boat, and proceed to attack our heroes. It’s a good thing for Sam that no polar bears or any other animals accustomed to freezing climates escaped from the zoo, otherwise he and everyone else in the library may have already been dinner.

They make it back to the library in one piece, and it seems the snow has become solid enough to walk on. Everyone takes this as their cue to make their escape, completely ignoring Sam’s warnings about the coming deadly weather. Predictably, they tell Sam to piss off, and just as predictably, they end up dead.

Then comes what might be the dumbest scene in the film, where the deadly cold finally arrives. And I do mean “arrives”, because we actually see ice forming on skyscrapers one by one, as the coldness “moves” through the city and heads for the library. Our characters are literally able to run from the cold into the room with the fireplace, and we even get a “coldness POV” shot as if they’re running from an axe murderer or something.

Eventually, Jack and Jason reach the library and reunite with Sam, Laura, Brian and everyone else who listened to Sam earlier. I guess that super-deadly cold air must be taking a coffee break right now, because helicopters are able to move in and rescue all the survivors.

Becker addresses the nation as the new President, and all but admits that he screwed up, saying that he and the rest of his government don’t deserve another term in office.

The movie ends with the astronauts still aboard the ISS (remember them?) commenting on how the air looks so clear from where they are. I guess they’re not too bummed out about their homes most likely being buried in snow. The final shot is of the Earth, with the northern hemisphere all frozen over.

To summarize, this film is basically Blockbuster 101. You have the characters who you know will die because they either a) don’t listen to the main characters or b) are especially chummy with the main characters. You have the obligatory big SFX set pieces, as well as the arbitrary romance subplot.

Sadly, the characters are basically all useless clichés. I’ve always thought that Dennis Quaid was one of our most underrated actors, so it’s quite disheartening to see him spending this movie spewing the same pseudoscientific gibberish over and over again.

Ian Holm, Sela Ward, and Jay O. Sanders are all clearly here for a paycheck, while Emmy Rossum and Tamlyn Tomita are just here as eye candy. In fairness though, Sela Ward has several nice scenes with a sick child, but it’s kind of odd to focus on one sick kid when millions of people are dying elsewhere. (Emmerich did a similar thing in ID4, showing a dog being miraculously saved while thousands were bring incinerated by a massive fireball.)

Likewise, Gyllenhaal and Rossum play characters straight out of a romantic comedy, where Boy holds back feelings for Girl (even while Rival Boy poses a challenge for her affections) until late in the film, and then confesses and they live happily ever after. At least they respectively had Brokeback Mountain and Shameless in their futures.

I guess the ending was also meant to be some sort of comment on immigration issues, showing the reverse of the current situation, with many Americans seeking refuge in Mexico. Though, I wonder where all the people freezing in Europe and Russia went to.

Like the previous year’s The Core, this film rightfully came under attack upon release by professionals who actually had some scientific knowledge. Specifically, while rising sea levels and changing weather patterns are certainly potential effects of global warming, the rapid pace at which those things occur in this film is just plain implausible.

Just as understandable were criticisms from those who thought depicting major death and destruction in New York just three years after 9/11 was insensitive. At least War of the Worlds had the decency to leave NYC alone.

Despite all this, there are actually worse SFX-laden blockbusters out there, as After Earth recently proved. This is because, for all its flaws, Tomorrow is never boring and you’re sure to get at least some enjoyment out of it (if you didn’t vote for Bush). But it doesn’t stick out from the many dumb blockbusters that came before or since, and it doesn’t seem to even aspire to be all that memorable.

If it’s a scathing commentary of the Bush administration you’re looking for, watch Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 instead, which was released the same year. Whether you agree with Moore’s politics or not, the only bad acting you’ll get in that film is from Bush himself (who, amusingly, was awarded a Razzie Award as Worst Actor for his “performance”).

Likewise, if you’re looking for a good film about the effects of climate change, watch Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Like Tomorrow, it has a dark message, but, unlike Tomorrow, it tells us how we can make things better without the use of any eye-rolling clichés.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Interview with Deborah Voorhees

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Deborah Voorhees who is best known for her appearance in Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning (1985) and for coincidentally sharing the same surname as Friday's killer Jason.
Deborah is also a talented writer and director. She recently finished her latest movie, Billy Shakespeare, which looks at Shakespeare in modern times. The film's website has all the details.


1. Deborah, you obviously have a following thanks to your role in Friday the 13th Part V. Would you return to the series if you were ever asked to?

-I’m sure that would be a blast. But I don’t know if they’d do one that brings the old “dead” characters back (laughs) unless it was a zombie flick.

2. Prior to that, you were a Playboy bunny. How would that experience compare with playing one of Jason’s victims?

-They are both iconic symbols in America. Everyone knows Jason and the Playboy Bunny.

3. Among your other screen credits are appearances on shows like Dallas and Days of Our Lives. Any memories that stick out from those shows?

-I really enjoyed being on Dallas because I also I worked as a stand in for two summers. I was there every day on the set; I felt more like I was a part of the team, rather than just coming in for a role and leaving. Larry Hagman (who played J.R.) used to sing “Peggy Sue” when I walked on set, except he changed the name to Debisue.

4. You’re also a writer, a teacher and a director. Is there one of those professions that you find particularly fulfilling?

-That’s a good question. They are different but they have characteristics that are the same. As a teacher, writer, director and actor, creativity is required to do well. Prior to teaching, I thought it would be boring, teaching the same thing over and over. I imagined that I’d say, “Kids open the book to Chapter 11, read it and answer the questions on the back.” That’s how school was when I grew up. Now, though, teaching is more dynamic. Good schools and good teachers teach outside of the textbook. They create curriculums and adjust the lesson on a moments notice if the kids aren’t “getting it.” I enjoyed working with students and coming up with new lessons. It could also be frustrating when parents, students, and administrators couldn’t see that learning requires a certain amount of frustration. If a child is never frustrated from a lack of understanding, it simply means that he or she isn’t being challenged. Many kids become bored and shut down. Teaching demands a lot of interaction with the faculty, the administration, the parents and kids. Writing is the opposite in this way. Writing is solitary; you’re on your own most of the time. I can become a hermit when I am writing. I may concentrate more heavily on it again at some point. But right now, with filmmaking, I am concentrating on putting my current works on film, and that’s a whole other level of learning. Billy Shakespeare has been an incredible learning experience. The most challenging, demanding, and creative side of filmmaking happens in the editing room. Being forced to edit my own film taught me more about directing and writing then actually writing and directing. That’s when you find out if you have what you need to make the story flow. It taught me a lot about what I can do next time to connect the scenes more smoothly. It taught me how to be a better director and writer.

5. Speaking of Billy Shakespeare, how did the idea for that movie come about?

-While working as a journalist with The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I covered arts and entertainment, so I went to the theater a lot and fell in love with Shakespeare. I started reading his works and reading about his life and compared them to my experiences in the crazy world of Hollywood. The city is vibrant and exciting in many ways, but actors and others in the biz are often treated like cattle. One audition I went on was for the role of a 16-year-old high school student. The casting agent liked my reading, but the feedback my agent received was ‘the character is supposed to be innocent and she has big boobs.’ Another similar incident was ‘she gave a great read; we love her, but this character is supposed to be smart; she has big boobs.” Shakespeare, likewise, went through his own struggles in London. The theater houses were viewed as only slightly more elevated than the brothels. I began imaging what his trials would look like in modern-day Hollywood. At first, it started out as a few jokes but soon it grew into a full script, for which I took historical aspects of his life and reimagined them in today’s L.A. For example, a love triangle in the film revolves around the historical question: who is ‘Mr. W.H.?’ Shakespeare wrote 126 sonnets, of a rather romantic nature, to this mysterious person, which has led some to speculate that he was gay. This isn’t necessarily so since during the Renaissance, the love between men was viewed as deeper because of the belief that women weren’t capable of the same purity of love.

6. Your production company, Voorhees Films, is currently making a comedy set in the 1800s. Can you tell us anything about that?

-We’re not shooting yet. We’re in pre-production. It’s about a 17-year-old Genevieve, who is jilted on her wedding day after she humiliates her husband-to-be by publically straddling a horse, which in this period is akin to fornicating in public. Her father sends her away to her aunt’s to be prepared for marriage to the man of her father’s “dreams.” Right now, I’m raising money for Cranford and promoting Billy Shakespeare.

7. Voorhees Films also records weddings and makes music videos and commercials. How does that differ from making a movie?

-Yes, we also create celebrations of life videos. All these are similar to writing a story for a newspaper because you are creating a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. The shorter pieces offer instant gratification, but I do love creating films—from writing the script, to directing, to editing. The challenge is intense. As a director, I really enjoy working with actors and being on the other side of the camera. As an actor on the set, you have a lot of down time. As a director, there is no down time. It’s very intense because everybody needs your attention. So you have to basically be working and thinking about 6 or 7 different things at the same time.

8. You’ve also written a novel called Memoirs of a Hit Man. Can you tell us about that?

-When I was at The Dallas Morning News, I spent time with three different men who were assassins. It’s fiction but the novel projects the emotional and intellectual integrity of what they went though in the Special Forces.

9. In addition, you have written numerous news stories. Is there any specific sort of news that you have a preference for?

-My favorite was to write about little-known artists such as a folk artist named Ike Morgan, who was a schizophrenic patient at a psychiatric hospital. His work has been seen in museums and high-dollar galleries. Another of my favorite stories was about a homeless man who created walking sticks on which he carved the psalms from the bible. He wasn’t easy to find to interview because he didn’t have a residence or phone. After visiting a few homeless shelters, I learned he was working behind a gallery close to downtown Dallas. When I met him, he actually pulled a knife on me. I wasn’t afraid, though, because I was thinking of the story. I explained who I was and he said, he had heard I was looking for him, but warned me to watch where I walked because “I might get cut.” After that we had a fabulous interview. I also interviewed an incredibly talented photographer named Laura Wilson, who created artistic photographic series on the Hutterites, ranchers and many other subjects. She is the mother of Luke and Owen Wilson.

10. I read that you don’t watch many horror films. Is there a genre that you especially like?

-I like romantic comedies and dark comedies. The House of Yes just cracks me up. I want to laugh. I don’t want to be scared. I don’t like that ‘boo’ stuff (laughs). I am too big of a chicken.

11. Do you plan to direct and write more movies in the future?

-I do. Besides what I’m working on, I want to do a documentary on Shakespeare. I’m working out the angle at the moment. I also want to do Romeo and Juliet in modern times but with a twist and some Shakespearean shorts.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Robin and Marian (1976)

"I love you...more than God!"
-Maid Marian to Robin Hood.


To ring in Valentine's Day, I'm looking at a film which was ahead of its time, but used a classic, beloved love story as its template.
The first film version of Robin Hood I remember seeing was Disney's animated Robin Hood (1973), in which animals played the parts, including a Baloo-esque bear as Little John. It is not as praised as other Disney outings such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) or Beauty and the Beast (1991), but it is fun, with great, funny voice work from Sir Peter Ustinov as Prince John (who is a lion) and Terry-Thomas as his aide Sir Hiss (who's a snake).
But the most famous film version of the outlaw who robbed from the rich to feed the poor during the Crusades is The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which its wonderful set pieces and Errol Flynn's Robin sword fighting with Sir Guy of Gisbourne, played by the great Basil Rathbone. The movie deservedly won Oscars for Art Direction, Film Editing and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's musical score.
There have been other film versions of Robin Hood, including a TV series which ran from 1955-1959. But, after Flynn's version, the most well-known version is probably Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves(1991), in which Kevin Costner played the title role. Costner himself was criticized for not sounding British, but other aspects of the movie were praised, including Alan Rickman's funny and scary turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham and Morgan Freeman's work as Robin's Moorish friend Azeem. Another nice touch was Sir Sean Connery's cameo as Richard the Lionheart at the movie's end. This gave celebrity cameos in films a good name because his presence was a delightful surprise for both the audience and the characters. It was also fitting because Connery played the role of Robin Hood himself 15 years earlier in Robin and Marian.
This version tells the story of the outlaw with a unique twist. It begins years after Robin thwarted the Sheriff (Robert Shaw) while romancing Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn). Robin and Little John (Nicol Williamson) are now in France as the Crusades are reaching their end. They begin to express disapproval over the violent methods used by Richard (Richard Harris) when he needlessly slaughters the people inside a castle Richard mistakenly thinks houses a gold statue. After ordering Robin and John's incarceration, Richard is wounded before he carries out the killings.
Robin is later brought before the dying King, who attempts to kill him, but is too weak and, with his dying breath, releases Robin and Little John.
Following Richard's funeral, Robin decides that the time is right to return to England. Once there, they reunite with their friends Will Scarlet (Denholm Elliott) and Friar Tuck (Ronnie Barker), who inform him that Marian is now a nun. Robin and Little John head to the abbey she is at. Marian is surprised to see her former love but has no interest in reuniting with him, as she is ready to turn herself in to the Sheriff for going against the orders of King John (Ian Holm).
Robin saves Marian despite the pleas of both her and the Sheriff, neither of whom wish for any trouble to arise.
When they return to Sherwood Forest, Robin and Marian have a heart-to-heart in which she asks him if he really wants another conflict with the Sheriff on his hands. Robin replies by telling her an incident in which he and Little John witnessed Richard ordering the killing of many Muslims while the churchmen accompanying them praised the carnage as a sign of God's greatness. He then says that the only reason he didn't return to England at that point was out of his loyalty to Richard.
At the same time, the Sheriff's compatriot Sir Ranulf (Kenneth Haigh) leads troops into Sherwood to take Robin, despite the Sheriff's warnings that he won't succeed. Robin kills Ranulf's men and spares him with a hostile warning. He then tells Marian he simply wants to resume his life in Sherwood with her.
Robin's return also brings cheers from the populace, some of whom wish to join him. This leads to King John ordering the arrests and murders of many of them. During this, Little John kills Sir Ranulf.
Robin then realizes that the only way he can end this is to challenge the Sheriff to a duel. This duel ends with Robin being mortally wounded before vanquishing the Sheriff. Little John and Marian take her to her abbey to tend to his wounds. It is then that she clandestinely gives both Robin and herself poison. Anguished at first, Robin then realizes that he would not have been able to recover and Marian simply took the step that would ensure they'd always be together. He then aims an arrow out the window toward Sherwood and tells a tearful Little John to bury them where the arrow lands.
Fittingly, the last shot of the film is a P.O.V. shot of the arrow as it goes up in the air.
Needless to say, all the actors are letter perfect in their roles here. Connery and Hepburn in the title roles elevate this movie to one of the great movie love stories, right up there with Casablanca (1942), and has a nice, romantic John Barry score to match.
The two stars are matched by Williamson whose Little John is loyal to Robin without simply being 'the sidekick.' One of the most touching moments in the film, though, is when he tells Marian:
"If I was Robin, I never would have left you."
This notion of Little John being in love with someone who is attached to his best friend makes for a moving twist and makes Little John's sadness at the end of the picture even more poignant.
Harris's brief but memorable appearance as Richard is also great. Depending on who you ask, the real Richard was either a hero or a tyrant, so it's interesting that a Robin Hood movie paints him as the latter, especially when Connery's depiction of the character in Prince of Thieves was more heroic.
Also great is Shaw, whose Sheriff is that rarest of antagonists: thoughtful. Robin wishes to return to the glorious life he led before joining Richard, but the Sheriff does not necessarily wish to restart their old conflict. But he also believes that they are tied by destiny, hence his line to Sir Raulf when the latter proclaims Robin is a dead man:
"Yes, but not just anyone's. He's mine!"
Their climatic fight scene is also a highlight, without falling into the trap of simply being a redo of the fight scene between Connery and Shaw in From Russia With Love (1963), the second James Bond movie. That conflict, between Connery's 007 and Shaw's Grant, is, without a doubt the best mano-a-mano fight scene in movie history. Their fight in this film is just as memorable because the characters and the motivations are different (Robin and the Sheriff actually help each other get to their feet before their fight begins). In both films, their characters have nice dialogue exchanges prior to their fight scenes.
This movie also became noteworthy for marking Hepburn's return to the big screen after eight years. When he introduced the picture on Turner Classic Movies in 2002, Robert Osborne stated that Marian was her last great role.
In a way, this takes Robin, Marian and the others in a different direction the same way The Dark Knight (2008) took the character of Batman in a different direction. The key difference is that the ending to this picture is even more downbeat (even Prince of Thieves, with its gritty tone, has an ending that makes you smile).
Replace the well-known characters with people we never heard of and this picture may have been as successful as Love Story (1970). But the fact that this picture was a Robin Hood picture led to expectations from the public that it'd be a fun adventure (indeed, the original title was The Death of Robin Hood, but Columbia Pictures, which released the film, thought a title change would make it more marketable), especially since it was directed by Richard Lester, who previously scored with the one-two punch of The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974).
Hence, the film's bold decision to do something different with these beloved figures proved something of a double-edge sword as audiences were initially not inclined to see a film which didn't end with Robin and Marian living happily ever after.
But this film deserves credit for doing something different. It also aims to put a lump in your throat and succeeds wonderfully.

Friday, January 31, 2014

How I would have done the Star Wars prequels


I have a deep, dark confession to make: I actually enjoyed Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). Granted, it suffered from the same CGI-overkill that plagued the Star Wars prequels. I can also see why fans didn't care for aliens (or 'inter-dimensional beings' as Indy creator George Lucas preferred to call them) inserted into the story, as the previous three Indy films were more religious-based. But it was a treat seeing Harrison Ford don the famous fedora and whip again. Although he clearly aged since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), he slipped back into the role so effortlessly it was almost as if no time had passed at all (similar to seeing Leonard Nimoy reprise Spock again in the last two Star Trek movies). Bringing Karen Allen's Marion back was another plus since many say she was the best of Indy's love interests.
I suppose I'm kinder to Crystal Skull than the Star Wars prequels because, when all's said and done, Crystal Skull was simply an entry in a beloved series that was less than stellar.
In contrast, the prequels are more deserving of criticism because they actually re-write aspects of what endeared people to the original Star Wars trilogy. The fact that Hayden Christensen was inserted into Return of the Jedi (1983) is, as far as I'm concerned, just as bad as Greedo firing first in the revised Star Wars (1977) because it changes the narrative of both characters and story. Red Letter Media summed it up best in his review when he stated that one of the biggest problems with the prequels was that it made Anakin out to be too central to the Star Wars universe in that he was prophesied as being the one destined to 'bring balance to the Force' (maybe George should have read the Harry Potter series to see how to properly write a character who is pre-ordained for greatness), whereas Vader, in the original trilogy, was part of a bigger story. Having the character basically be, as Red Letter Media called him, 'Space Jesus'(the character apparently had no father) was way too over the top.
In the original trilogy, Luke was an everyday character, which made it easy for many to put themselves in his shoes-not so for the way Anakin was played in the prequels. There is also the fact that the universal appeal of the Force itself was ruined when George introduced us to midichlorians, which are apparently little things in someone's blood that determine if a person can be a Jedi. I won't even go into other bothersome aspects such as R2-D2 and C-3PO appearing(don't get me wrong, I love both those characters, but they had no place in the prequels because it contradicts certain aspects of the original trilogy), Anakin building 3PO, Yoda fighting with a lightsaber like he's the Tazmanian Devil and, yes, Jar Jar Binks.
In my previous entry, I noted that The Godfather Part III (1990) had the same anticipation, and generated the same disappointment, as the prequels. I then realized that there was a 16-year gap between The Godfather Part II (1974) and Part III, as well as a 16-year gap between Jedi and The Phantom Menace (1999). It's an interesting coincidence that such a gap would lead to such disappointment from fans.
While Part III has its good points, The Godfather series should have ended with Part II but the prequels were a story that many fans (including me) were making, at least in their own minds, since Jedi came out. Luke seeing the spirits of his old man, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda smiling at him at Jedi's end allowed us to imagine the story of how these three were proud comrades-in-arms once upon a time only for tragedy to tear them apart before Luke eventually reunites them.
So, I've decided to do something many blogs have done before, which is to give my own ideas on how I would have done the prequels. Before I begin, I will say that there were elements of the prequels I liked. So my own ideas for them will have those elements included. To that end, I will keep the titles of each of the prequels. Once they were announced, the titles of the first two prequels were criticized by some fans. Granted, a title can often be misleading, such as Batman (1989), which has the title character (played by Michael Keaton) taking a backseat to Jack Nicholson's Joker in terms of both screen time and characterization, or (to beat a dead horse yet again) Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), which turned out to be no more faithful to the title novel than many of the other adaptations of Dracula. But a title, more often than not, has little impact on the quality of the actual movie itself.
Secondly, despite the criticism and the Golden Raspberry Awards he received, I have nothing against the casting of Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. If any improvement was needed, it's that the character should have been written differently, not necessarily that a different actor was needed. Christensen has delivered good performances as anyone who has seen Life as a House (2001) and Shattered Glass can tell you.

1. The Phantom Menace: I would start with having Christensen play Anakin in this film. Lucas having the character as a very small boy was superfluous to say the least (check out this article on Jake Lloyd, who played Anakin in Menace, and it's quite sad how he's turned out). I would have Obi-Wan Kenobi encountering Anakin and persuading Yoda to train him. Yoda could be reluctant due to Anakin's reckless nature.
One of their first assignments could be to assist Senator (not Queen) Amidala, whose planet is under siege by a growing force controlled by Darth Tyranus and his aide Darth Maul. Tyranus, unbeknownst to the Jedi, has a pre-Emperor Palpatine in his pocket. During the course of the film, Obi-Wan and Anakin's friend Qui-Gon Jinn could be murdered by Tyranus. The film could end with Tyranus and Maul escaping and with Anakin becoming a Jedi and beginning a romantic relationship with Amidala.

2. Attack of the Clones: Obi-Wan could be spending his time tracking Tyranus and Maul in order to avenge Qui-Gon's death. Anakin notes this obsession, which leads to his own in protecting Amidala, to whom he later proposes. At the same time, Palpatine is secretly plotting against Tyranus as his own political career is expanding. Obi-Wan and Anakin could eventually track down Tyranus just as he's unleashing his new clone army against the Republic. Obi-Wan and Anakin could then have lightsaber duels with Maul and Tyranus, in which Maul is killed by Obi-Wan but Tyranus, after critically injuring Anakin in their duel, escapes.

3. Revenge of the Sith: The Republic is now breaking apart because of the Clone Wars, which allows Palpatine to rise and declare himself Emperor. The war has also separated Anakin and Amidala, which prevents her from informing him that she is pregnant. Anakin also has visions of her dying. These visions could lead to him deducing that Palpatine is in league with Tyranus. Anakin could then barely defeat Tyranus before fighting the Emperor. But Anakin's fight with Tyranus weakens him enough for the Emperor to overpower him. But, instead of finishing him off, the Emperor could use Tyranus's cloning technology on him, similar to what happened to Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The Best of Both Worlds" two-parter, in which he's kidnapped by the Borg, who proceed to turn him into one of them. (In Jedi, Yoda told Luke "Don't underestimate the powers of the Emperor, or suffer your father's fate you will!"). In both cases, these are good men who are overtaken by forces who use their power and knowledge to exterminate their own people.
Anakin fighting both Tyranus and the Emperor could be against the advice of Obi-Wan, Yoda and the other Jedi, who could implore Anakin not to go it alone. Hence, his recklessness and arrogance could still contribute to his fall to the Dark Side.
Thus, when Luke cuts off his hand in Jedi, Anakin could slowly but surely re-emerge since the technology that has imprisoned him for so long has been compromised. This is why it takes him a moment before he saves his son by killing the Emperor.
As Anakin falls to the Emperor, Amidala could give birth to Luke and Leia, but the war could separate her from Luke, who finds his way into Obi-Wan's hands. But she and Leia could make it to safety (hence, why Leia remembers her in Jedi) and Obi-Wan and Luke end up on Tatooine after seeing Yoda off on Degobah, since Luke says in The Empire Strikes Back(1980) that it looked familiar. So, we don't necessarily have to see the death of Amidala as we did in the prequels. Details like that don't necessarily need to be explained outright. For instance, in Jedi, Luke introduces himself to Jabba the Hutt as a Jedi. This led me to assume that he had already gone back to Degobah in between Empire and Jedi, because I would hardly think he would introduce himself to someone in that manner unless he had further training. His rescue of Han Solo from Jabba could then be seen as a test of sorts, since Luke then goes back to Degobah afterward and Yoda tells him that his only remaining task is to confront Vader again.

When someone is disappointed with a film, he/she may say something like "I could write something better than that." Over the years, I've seen many films that have given me the same reaction. I guess this is a reason why I'm now a writer myself-so I could actually try to write something better.